January 11, 2011

Census 2010: The Last Seat in Congress

A decade ago, the apportionment counts from the 2000 Census showed that North Carolina was the luckiest state in the country. Based on its population gains, it won the last seat in Congress, the 435th. In 2010, though, North Carolina’s fortunes were not as good.

When the 2010 Census apportionment counts were announced last month, they showed that North Carolina fell short of winning the 435th or last seat. This time, the 435th went to Minnesota. (If it is any comfort to North Carolinians, the state would have gained the theoretical 436th seat in Congress, if one existed.)

Census numbers are used to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives using a formula that assigns each state one seat, and, one at a time, allocates the remaining 385 places. The allocation is based on the size of each state’s resident population, plus any overseas military and civilian federal workers (and dependents) from that state.

In 2010, North Carolina fell nearly 15,800 people short of the number it would have needed to win the last seat instead of having it go to Minnesota, according to calculations by Pew Research Center senior demographer Jeffrey Passel.

“I can tell you that is the largest discrepancy in half a century,” said Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves at a news conference announcing the results. “So there’s a pretty good spread between the 435th and the 436th relative to past censuses.”

After the 2000 Census, when North Carolina won the 435th seat, Utah would have been next in line, but fell short by a considerably smaller margin: 856 people.(Any variation in the size of the shortfall from one census to the next is random.)

Utah went to court to challenge the count on a number of grounds, but lost. One of Utah’s arguments was that it was not fair that the Census Bureau included overseas military and federal workers in a state’s apportionment count, but excluded missionaries from Utah who were deployed overseas by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That year, North Carolina’s apportionment count included 18,360 overseas Americans, compared with Utah’s 3,545. Those overseas workers helped North Carolina surpass Utah in priority for the last congressional seat, but Utah’s Mormon missionaries could have countered that.

According to Pew Research Center calculations, the overseas population that was added to state resident population totals in 2010 did not have an impact this time on the allocation of seats.

In 2010, Utah comfortably won another seat based on its own population gains, increasing the size of its congressional representation to four. Minnesota (including its take of the last seat) and North Carolina held onto the same number of seats they had had—eight and 13, respectively.

Overall, eight states gained seats and 10 states lost them, according to the Census Bureau. A dozen seats moved among states.